The quirky work of Leonardo Benzant: “Why not acknowledge it: I am a person of African descent”

The turnabout comes on June 15th 1995. This is when the street life of Leonardo Benzant abruptly comes to an end. As a result of excessive drug use he is admitted into the hospital. From that moment on he knows that he has to change his life. He has to focus on making art. He must make use of the ‘healing activity’ that art can be. At the same time he becomes more and more aware of the potential of blacks. They can do more than the stereotypical representation of them that the white environment suggests. There is more to them than an emotionally charged slavery past. The rebel who has spent his days on and in the streets of Brooklyn becomes an artist who, fueled by his African roots, seriously starts working on an idiosyncratic oeuvre. Successfully so, it seems.

Leonardo Benzant, 'Mama Kalunga and the Funky World of the Kongo'  | PHOTO Courtesy Leonardo Benzant
Leonardo Benzant, ‘Mama Kalunga and the Funky World of the Kongo’ | PHOTO Courtesy Leonardo Benzant

The Dominican Republic and Haiti are in the genes of Benzant. That’s where his parents came from. He was always puzzled by the fact that many people, particularly from the Dominican Republic, either consciously or subconsciously, did not associate themselves with Africa, even though for example, the music they surround themselves with, the food that they eat and the rituals that they perform make it almost impossible to deny those roots. For him that denial resulted in a search for his own identity. In the end it led to one single conclusion: “I am a person of African descent, why not acknowledge it.”

After his initiation, it is as though the world opens up for him. “You die and you are reborn in a metaphysical way. You are given information about how to work with spirits. How to use them in a positive way.” He sees himself as a sort of medium which brings to life the memories of his ancestors. As he is working, all kinds of stories come to him, stories from the past. “I see a movie in my head.” He gets the feeling that they have something to do with him.  “As if the people in it are family members.”

Those stories are projected into his work. In the past few years these are primarily paintings, wall sculptures and drawings, but they could just as easily be performances or videos. He does not restrict himself to one medium.

Leonardo Benzant, 'Afrosupernatural Combat' | PHOTO Courtesy Leonardo Benzant
Leonardo Benzant, ‘Afrosupernatural Combat’ | PHOTO Courtesy Leonardo Benzant

The first thing one notices in his work is how colorful it is. Colors are to him more than just formal means, they are imaginations of energies, of emotions and of moods. The whole image plane is covered. Colorful shapes contained in a tangle of lines and characters. They look like abstract or at least abstracted works, but when you take a closer look you see figurative elements which are part of the lines.  They are practically natural continuations thereof.  The characters are mostly references or symbols, inspired by very old ideographic traditions (f.i. Congolese). Probably not easily interpretable for everyone, but as viewer you do feel that there is more hidden behind or within it. You don’t see what you see. You know that. The whole provides an energetic and lively image.  In that context Benzant likes to use the word ‘rhythm’. He compares his creative process to that of playing jazz music. Going out from a more or less fixed theme, improvising and staying open to the influences which present themselves to you at the moment, culminating in a fascinating composition.

Leonardo Benzant, Beings Born from Word and Stitch  | PHOTO Courtesy Leonardo Benzant
Leonardo Benzant, Beings Born from Word and Stitch | PHOTO Courtesy Leonardo Benzant

The work in which he uses textile instead of paint refers to Yoruba culture. In Africa textiles are not only linked to certain rituals, religious or otherwise, they are, since the abolition of slavery, also used to relay an implicit political message to the colonial ruler. The slave trade has brought these textiles to the West, often while retaining their original meaning. For many forms of patchwork the lines can be traced back to Africa.

In his textile pieces the figurative aspect is lacking. There it is all about patterns and composing a distinct colorful whole, with all the symbolism that goes along with it and again, established in a highly improvised manner. In certain works the textile pieces are stuffed. Thus they grow into wall sculptures. Whether the fillings refer to traditional fillings which have healing or protective qualities, I don’t know, but it seems highly probable.  That these works were made in collaboration with others – such as family members – is in fact a continuation of the traditional way in which for example many American quilts have been and are made, and the way in which many African artists still make their works (think of El Anatsui with his ‘tapestries’ composed of aluminum bottle tops).

Of course Africa is a large source of inspiration for Benzant. Still there are also other, more basic influences. He is after all an artist of this time walking around in the present. He says that his use of colors and the way in which he combines colors or places them across from one another, also has something to do with his mothers wardrobe.  As a child he was fascinated by the wide range of colors of her clothing and the way in which she arranged them in the closet. His drawings are on the one hand inspired by the quick sketches that his father drew when he was trying to explain things. On the other hand they are also influenced by the written slang, similar to how colleagues such as Jean-Michel Basquiat used the imagery of the neighborhood in his paintings and drawings.

Leonardo Benzant, 'Mayombe Magic in the Urban Jungle' | PHOTO Courtesy Leonardo Benzant
Leonardo Benzant, ‘Mayombe Magic in the Urban Jungle’ | PHOTO Courtesy Leonardo Benzant

Leonardo Benzant is insatiable. Sometimes he writes texts that make the work of the art critic redundant. It is not inconceivable that his work will move into a greater spatial direction. He currently limits himself mostly to the flat surface because his work circumstances demand it. It would hardly surprise me if his experience with performance (also in the sense of theatre) is developed further. The theatrical element that already shows through in many of his works will not be constrained forever. Video and sound will return when the context requires it and the financial means allow it.

He will however always remain the ‘Urban Shaman’ who builds bridges between the visible and the invisible world, who will incorporate the strengths and traditions from his ancestors and combine them with personal memories, thoughts, dreams and concepts, who will connect past and present into a sometimes mysterious but always emotional whole.

This article was previously published in Sranan Art Xposed, nr. 7, February 2013. Please visit Leonardo Benzant’s Facebookpage for the latest updates about his work.

TEXT Rob Perrée, Amsterdam, November 2012

TRANSLATION Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld, 2013

Rob Perrée works as freelance writer, art critic and curator, specialized in contemporary (Afro-) American art, African art and art that incorporates new media. His work has appeared in numerous catalogues, books, magazines and newspapers. He is editor of the Dutch art magazine Kunstbeeld.

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